Now more than ever, China is on the minds of U.S. soybean producers.

While tariffs are of concern to farmers in Missouri and in every soy-producing state, the U.S. Soy industry continues to work hard to maintain access to this important market.

The partnership between the two countries is a long one. U.S. Soy has a 36-year track record of actively investing and partnering in programs that support China’s goals of achieving sustainable food security and food safety.

Norborne, Missouri farmer Todd Gibson serves as a director for the United Soybean Board (USB) and the U.S. Soybean Export Council (USSEC).  USSEC is often referred to as the international marketing arm for the U.S. Soy industry, helping to build a preference for U.S. soybeans and soybean products through a global network of international offices and strong support in the U.S.

Norborne famer Todd Gibson fills his planter with seeds as he prepares to plant soybeans that may wind up in China as animal feed for the country’s large swine or poultry industries.

“USSEC wants to be sure that our soybean farmers know that USSEC and the U.S. Soy industry is continuing to work on their behalf to build demand and expand market access for U.S. Soy products in China,” Gibson says.

An Enormous Market

Home to a whopping 1.3 billion soy consumers, China is the largest importer of U.S. soybeans. The country currently purchases approximately one in every three rows of the soybeans grown in the U.S., valued at more than $14 billion.

In 2016/17, the U.S. exported roughly 60 percent of its annual soybean crop with 62 percent of whole soybean exports heading to China. This is approximately 50 percent of total soy export (beans, meal, and oil). The U.S. market share of China’s soybean imports has been between 35 and 40 percent over the last few years.

The country’s gross domestic product (GDP) is $12.26 trillion with per capita income of $9100, marking an 8 percent growth in the last two years. In 2015, the Chinese government declared the official growth rate at 6.5 percent, although this is widely disputed. What is undeniable, however, is that the Chinese economy is still growing, albeit at a slower rate of growth or a “new normal.”

Supply and Demand

China’s soybean consumption per annum is 92 metric million tons (MMT) with projected 2017 imports at 83 MMT.

All imported soybeans are crushed to produce soybean meal for the country’s massive feed industry. Increases in soybean imports are driven by increases in demand for soybean meal from feed industry. The country is also the world’s second largest importer of crude vegetable oils.

China is the fourth largest producer of soybeans in the world, and it is increasing its own soybean production. Currently, the country produces slightly more than 13 MMT of entirely non-GMO soybeans. Of those beans, more than 90 percent go for soy food production. China’s goal is to increase soybean production to 18 to 20 MMT by 2020, which could reduce growth in its volume of imports. Still, the country’s future soybean import growth is projected to continue to increase.

Chinese purchasing is seasonal. The country buys most of its soybeans from the U.S. in the late summer and fall, and then switches to South American beans in the spring months.

China’s huge, modern crush industry has the capacity to crush 150 MMT of soybeans annually. Currently, the country is utilizing only 60 percent of its crush capacity, 70 percent of which is domestically owned.

Weak crush margins do not curtail Chinese production or imports.

The feed industry is growing and consolidating with an expected growth of 5 percent annually over the next twenty years.  Animal production is rapidly moving to concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFO). Poultry feed demand is under immense pressure from food safety scandals and the country’s pork industry profitability is returning after a large culling of the herd, which meant reduced feed production in 2016.

Soy food consumption is also growing. Chinese consumption of soy foods has increased 100 percent over the last 20 years. 


As China rapidly urbanizes, 55 percent of its population now lives in cities and towns. This shift continues to increase animal protein consumption. Chinese meat consumption is currently 59 kilograms per household, while U.S. meat consumption is 85 kilograms.

This leaves plenty of room for growth of animal feed and soybean meal consumption, says Paul Burke, U.S. Soybean Export Council (USSEC) Regional Director – North Asia.

“Urbanization is a big factor in China’s need for soybeans. We see the Chinese population, about 300 million people, moving from the countryside into the city. They’re going to increase their incomes and improve their diets, their demand for animal protein and vegetable oil,” says Burke.

“That’s like moving the population of the United States from a lower-income livelihood to a middle class livelihood. Imagine if 300 million people in the U.S. were to increase their animal protein and vegetable oil consumption by 30 percent. That’s the upside potential and we’re going to see that in the next ten years.”

All imported soybeans are crushed to produce soybean meal for the country’s feed industry, which drives the demand for soybean imports. Because China’s crush industry is only operating at about 60 percent capacity, there’s still a lot of room for growth.

“We estimate an increase in soybean imports of 3 to 5 MMT per year for the next decade in China,” says Burke.

“As a U.S. grower, I am continuing to raise quality, reliable soybeans in a sustainable manner for our customers around the world,” Gibson says.


The U.S. Soy industry’s superior infrastructure and connectivity get Missouri soybeans to China consistently and dependably.

“The reason the U.S. soybean industry is so competitive on the international marketplace is not due to a lower cost of production. It rather is due to a lower cost of transportation,” says Mike Steenhoeck, Executive Director of the Soy Transportation Coalition.

“The U.S. has a long history of being able to transport significant volumes of soybeans long distances in a cost effective and reliable manner,” Steenhoeck continues.

“Our multi-modal system of roads and bridges, freight railroads, the inland waterway system, and ports allow farmers located in the interior part of the country to connect with distant markets and, as a result, be among the most international of entrepreneurs.

“The historic, current, and future profitability of the U.S. soybean farmer remains a function of growing supply and robust demand, but we also need to have connectivity between supply and demand. Our transportation system provides that connectivity.”

Market Access

Market access maximizing the U.S. Soy Advantage and minimizing potential trade barriers to China has long been a focal point for USSEC. Market access refers to both proactive and reactive engagement ensuring markets are open, and includes relationship management, crisis management, and policy advocacy.

In September 2017, U.S. Soy grower leaders visited China to take part in an anniversary gala celebrating 35 years of partnership between China and the U.S. Soy industry.

The recent proposed tariffs are not the only market access issues that the U.S. Soy industry has worked on. Other concerns in China have included biotech approvals and foreign matter.

Late last year, the U.S. cooperatively worked with China on a foreign matter agreement. The agreement between the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Plant Protection and Quarantine (APHIS) and China’s General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine (AQSIQ) went into effect on January 1 and was the result of Chinese demands about certain quality aspects, particularly weed seed content, of their U.S. soybean imports. The Chinese agreed to a systems approach involving the entire U.S. Soy supply chain from farm to exporter. The new policy will identify all soybean shipments that contain over 1 percent foreign material. USSEC believes this will improve the quality of U.S. Soy exports over time and is optimistic that this agreement will help the U.S. to continue to be viewed as a reliable and responsive supplier for customers both in China and in other markets.

Biotechnology is a matter in which the U.S. Soy industry has been engaged in for quite some time. Delays in biotech trait approvals affect what Missouri farmers can grow in their fields. In 2017, a peer-reviewed white paper “The Potential Economic Impacts of Delayed Biotech Innovation in Soybeans,” detailed the benefits of GMO crops for countries that accept them while also documenting the economic impact of delays in regulatory approval, showing that a three-year postponement in global approval of biotech-enhanced soybean traits any time in the next 10 years would cost farmers and consumers a total of nearly $19 billion, compared with typical approval timelines.

The current GMO approval process in China is dysfunctional and not transparent. For some time, new U.S. – specific events have been approved only through U.S. government intervention. USSEC has taken steps in developing initiatives to help boost the Chinese market for U.S. Soy in response to the bogged-down approval process. While the Chinese government endorses biotechnology, certain segments oppose biotech and see it as a U.S. plot to destabilize China. This issue has become very politicized in China, and the government is grappling with the problem. Chinese citizens are often mistrustful of the government when it comes to food safety. 

USSEC has introduced a three-prong approach to help ease some of these issues. The organization has engaged the Chinese industry to talk with their government about potential supply problems if the approval process doesn’t move expeditiously; has worked to build consumer confidence and combat misleading media reports about biotech through programs such as U.S. Farm Moms to China, which helps to create a dialogue about food and families; and has engaged with the International Soybean Growers Alliance (ISGA) to work with like-minded countries.

In April, a U.S. delegation that included grower leaders and USSEC staff participated in an ISGA mission trip to China to discuss the benefits of biotechnology. ISGA, formed in 2006, brings together farmers and industry representatives from the United States and five other countries that supply over 95 percent of the world’s soybean production. The alliance helps to consolidate the voices of soybean producers in opposing market restrictions, excessive tariffs, and scientifically unsound non-tariff barriers regarding environmental, health, chemical residues, or biotechnology approvals. The alliance has visited China on several occasions to connect with Chinese stakeholders. Food security is a critical question facing today’s world, and this one-on-one engagement between soybean farmers and consumers helps to balance fear and misinformation with objective, evidence-based analysis.

This story originally appeared in the June edition of Missouri Soybean Farmer, the magazine of the Missouri Soybean Associaton.